UVA Today Blog

Semester at Sea: Going Ghana

A picture of a sign at the end of a trail in Kakum National Park, Ghana, that reads, "You survived. Please hand over your badge here. Good bye."

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

A picture of Ghanaian children.

Ghanaian children.

Coming out of uber-European South Africa, Ghana was a whole different world. Since Myanmar, the countries we’d been visiting – India, Mauritius, South Africa – had been getting progressively wealthier; but when we landed in a place where most people in the city are living in one or two-room shacks, you’re reminded again that most of the world doesn’t look like Europe.

Ghana is FULL of color. Women in bright clothes and bold patterns walk along the roadsides, balancing bowls on their heads with goods inside for sale. Kids are everywhere, too: babies slung around their mothers’ backs and groups of school-age children walking adorably in their matching uniforms. It’s tropical, hot and muggy, with wonderful, heavy food (I ate my weight in plantains). And everything runs on Africa time, i.e. the bus will get here …when it gets here.

A picture of a man seated at a table with colorful bowls filled with water for hand washing.

The first thing our waitress put on our table was a bottle of soap and two bowls filled with warm water – for us to wash our hands! I ordered fufu, a ball of dough that Ghanaians eat with their hands and then rinse at the dinner table.

People here love to sing, and as you can imagine, Ghana’s got the bongo-music scene on lock. But when Ghanaian guys discovered that I was from the States, they would immediately start throwing out American rap lyrics (“You know Lil’ Wayne, yah?!”). True cross-cultural bonding thanks to Weezy, check.

The most impactful part of Ghana for me was the day I visited the former slave castles in Cape Coast and Elmina. It’s one thing to read about slavery in a textbook, but another to experience buildings that, at one time, were shipping 60 percent of slaves from Africa to Europe and the New World.

A picture of the "Door of No Return" shown in shadows.

The “Door of No Return” led to waiting ships on the coast, where enslaved Africans who had already spent months in the dark would be packed and transported out of Africa forever.


A picture of Elmina slave castle in South Africa.

Inside the Elmina slave castle. The castle acted as a depot where captured slaves from the African interior were brought and sold to Portuguese traders.

I walked through the dungeons where hundreds of African people were packed in and abused for months; saw the chambers where they’d be sent to starve and die; and climbed to the top of the lookout towers to see the coastline that was once filled with cargo ships. It’s hard to describe how haunting, and surreal it was to be in this place with this history, now empty and hollow.

The castles were powerful places to visit, but Ghana is definitely a different place today than it was 300 years ago. I also trekked through the rainforest, where, I enjoyed seeing this sign at the end of one trail at Kakum National Park:

I also spent a day learning how to drum and dance with a university performing arts troupe. My acting class is studying how other cultures use the performing arts to tell their stories, so in Ghana, naturally, we learned about music. No photos, but the performance that the troupe and my class put on for the shipboard community later on was packed and tons of fun, I promise. I love that for all of these countries we’re able to bring a little piece of it back with us, whether it’s a souvenir or a song!

A picture of a sign at the end of a trail in Kakum National Park, Ghana, that reads, "You survived. Please hand over your badge here. Good bye."

Twitter + Donut = Study Break


Everyone knows that final exams can be stressful. To ease some tension and put smiles on student faces, the @UVA twitter account offered free donut delivery to the first 10 studying students who replied to a tweet on Thursday. Here’s what happened:

Semester at Sea: Hoos Over Cape Town

A picture of a wall which overlooks Capetown, Sourth Africa, with "Hoos over CPT" written on it.

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

A picture of a wall which overlooks Capetown, Sourth Africa, with "Hoos over CPT" written on it.

Found this U.Va shout out at the top of the Lion’s Head mountain, which overlooks Signal Hill and the bay area.

Friday morning, I woke up to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (Time for Africa)” blaring over the ship’s P.A. system, but it was probably the best thing I’d heard over that intercom – because it meant we’d arrived in Cape Town! Not only was the ship in Africa, but it had arrived at the most visited, diverse and modern city in the entire African continent.

The Cape Town peninsula is more like a cornucopia of Stuff To Do: mountains to climb, street dancers to watch, Pan-African fair-trade markets to peruse, beaches, penguins, tons of history to learn, the International Jazz Festival (!), and even whales (and sharks) to watch off the coast. I did more in South Africa than I have room to write about – six days was so short! But I can’t complain because after all, this is SAS, and this week was a blast.

A picture showing the colorful facades of homes in the Malay Quarter of Capetown, South Africa.

Bo Kaap, the Malay and predominantly Muslim Quarter of the city, is filled with colorful homes and is a popular backdrop for movie sets. The quiet area was dotted with mosques and halal restaurants.

I had the privilege of visiting Robben Island, where the late former president Nelson Mandela and hundreds of political prisoners were incarcerated from the early 1960s until 1991. My tour guide, Jama, was a former inmate of the prison, where he served five years after organizing a government protest at his high school in the ’70s. He took my group through the common areas, low-security rooms, and the maximum-security section, where Mandela was kept. Jama also showed us the spot where a few prisoners drafted South Africa’s current constitution – inside a cave that quarry worksite supervisors wouldn’t enter, because it was also the site’s bathroom.

Something I hadn’t anticipated during my visit was the still-present effect of apartheid in Cape Town. Twenty years after desegregation, most of the city’s white population still lives in nearby gated communities, but a majority of the ~3 million black and colored population live in townships farther outside of the city limits, where living conditions often lack basic plumbing and electricity. The massive income gap in the Cape Town area – where beachfront real estate goes for millions of U.S. dollars – has been the cause of recent for government protests, and it’s also fueled the city’s high crime rate. While the races are no longer separated, the discrepancy in living standards is still a major problem that the rest of the world often doesn’t hear about in the media.

A picture of Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, South Africa.

At Robben Island, the jail cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.

A picture of the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.

Today, a statue of the late President Mandela presides over South Africa’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

But while the city may still be facing economic challenges, it’s hard to deny that the South African people are tons of fun. My interactions with locals almost always included laughter (usually involving my accent). They encouraged me to enjoy the city, and even if I was talking to vendors who were trying to sell me something, I was consistently told to ‘take my time’ (which was so opposite the vendors in Asia).

The easygoing and happy spirit in the people of South Africa matched the colorful walls of their city, and with Table Mountain above and the beach below, it was hard not to be in a good mood in Cape Town. I also loved finding music everywhere, from a break-out guitar session on the late-night train to a citywide concert in the Kirstenbosch gardens.

I’ve realized that all my Cape Town escapades, whether they taught me a lesson or just made me laugh, helped me appreciate how a place I knew so little about before this semester quickly turned into one of my favorite places (so far) in the world. It’s been a sweet introduction to Africa.

A picture of a crowd at singer/songwriter Lira's concert in South Africa.

Chillin out to singer/songwriter Lira at the city’s weekend concert series in the Kirtenbosch Gardens. Though it started as a picnic concert, everyone was on their feet by the end of the performance.

Photos: Leaders on Grounds, Part 1

We asked U.Va. student leaders to pick a place on Grounds that had special meaning to them as the location for a portrait. Take a look at the resulting images and read why the students chose these spots.

Julian Jackson – President, National Pan-Hellenic Council – Batten School
U.Va. student Julian Jackson, President of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, shown at the Batten School

“The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy was established by the University of Virginia in 2007 as part of its strategic plan and as an expression of its Jeffersonian heritage. The School is made possible by a generous gift from the late Frank Batten, Sr., one of the University’s most loyal supporters who stated ‘Never has there been a greater need for the University’s most important product: enlightened and ethical leaders who leave Grounds prepared for public life–in their communities, in their professions, in the world at large.’

I will be in the second graduating class from the Public Policy Major and look forward to one day serving in our nations government.”

Katie Somers – Co-Chair, Housing & Residence Life – Music Department
U.Va. student Katie Somers, Co-Chair of Housing & Residence Life, shown in the Music Department

“I found my first home at the University in the music department, and feel so thankful that I have been granted an opportunity to pursue my passion for music in college. Everyday, I am reminded how fortunate I am to sing and learn in such a beautiful place.”

Nick Hine – Chair, Honor Committee – Honor OfficesU.Va. student Nick Hine, Chair of the Honor Committee, shown in the Honor Offices

“I’m getting photographed in the Honor offices as the Chair of the Honor Committee. I selected this location because Honor is the purest form of student self-governance at U.Va, and the Honor offices on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall are one of the best spatial representations of this ideal. On any given day, the various Honor offices in Newcomb Hall are filled with students preparing for Honor trials, planning outreach events, or making policy decisions that affect the way Honor interacts with the student body. On weekends, this is also where students are judged by juries of their peers in Honor Trials, and where the Honor Committee convenes for its weekly meetings.”

Timothy Kimble – Chair, University Judiciary Commitee – Alderman LibraryU.Va. student Timothy Kimble, Chair of the University Judiciary Commitee, shown in Alderman Library.

“Apart from where books’ contents can take you, I’ve always appreciated them as physical objects. I love the smell of an old book and the feel of its pages. When I toured colleges, the first place I would find and explore was the library because I knew I would end up spending time there. Alderman is one of my favorite libraries on Grounds because, if you really want, you can get lost in its shelves. I happen to think that’s pretty cool.”

Allen Au – President, Multicultural Greek Council – McIntire CourtyardA picture of U.Va. student Allen Au, President of the Multicultural Greek Council in the McIntire Courtyard.

“I appreciate McIntire Courtyard for the peace and tranquility it provides. I’ve always been a big proponent of enjoying the outdoors, and it’s interesting to see the contrast between the high indoor activity of the Comm School and the relaxed atmosphere of the courtyard. As such, I like to spend time in the courtyard when I’m not in meetings or out and about on-Grounds.”

Julia Pedrick – President, Inter-Sorority Council – Arts GroundsU.Va. student Julia Pedrick, President of the  Inter-Sorority Council shown on the Arts Grounds

“I had the opportunity of helping build Stickworks with visiting artist Patrick Dougherty. My sculpture class helped him with every stage of the project, from cutting down and collecting saplings, to removing all of the leaves, to installing the scaffolding, to actually building the hut-like sculptures. I learned so many wood and artistic techniques from him, but I was mostly inspired by his ability to bring drawing components and movement to an organic sculpture. Patrick focused on creating movement in his piece and engaging the viewer by making his structures open and inviting.

Ruffin Hall is like a second home to me, and it is where I have grown as an artist. From classes in drawing, to painting, to sculpture, I have been pushed to discover skills I didn’t know I had. Ruffin is a very open environment, and its architecture encourages wandering around to other classrooms to see what people are working on. I am always surprised and pleased to see the multitude of artistic works on display, especially in the sculpture gallery. My classmates and artistic peers never fail to amaze me with their craftsmanship and innovation.”

Semester at Sea: Soaking, Singing and Becoming a Shellback

A picture of a man dressed as King Neptune, in green, who presided over the festivities and knighted the new shellbacks with his triton.

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

Post-India, we had two full weeks (no weekends) of class at sea in the Indian Ocean. So for about eight hours in the middle of this stretch, we were excited to get off the ship and explore the island nation of Mauritius!

Umbrella's hanging over a lane in Mauritius.But once we arrived, it started pouring rain. So the hanging umbrella lane pictured was one of the only pictures I took, because I frankly spent most of the day taking refuge inside a shopping center close to the ship. Since I had to cancel my beach and hiking plans, my friends and I worked on our movie for the ship’s upcoming 72-hour film festival inside the mall.

Still, through our pre-port lectures, I learned a lot about the island nation. Mauritius is unique in that the Portuguese found it uninhabited in 1507, settled there, and then the island’s ownership was shuffled around several European countries. These non-colonizers brought over a bunch of indentured slaves and laborers, who ended up staying when most of the Europeans hauled out after WWII. Since its independence from the UK in 1968, Mauritius has grown in to a popular vacation destination. With a mix of citizens of mostly Malay and Indian descent, the country has four official languages, and I found that it was a great place to practice my French! Mauritius is also home to the (now extinct) Dodo bird, and has a lovely museum to commemorate this fallen majesty.

I returned to the MV Explorer soaked to the bone, but in the days that followed afterward, SAS put on plenty of awesome events to break up the monotony of classes:

Neptune Day

Whenever a ship crosses the equator, tradition states that the voyagers have a set of initiations to follow in order to turn from ‘polliwog’ status into a ‘shellback.’ I don’t know what these terms mean, but the initiation involved being drenched with blue kool-aid, jumping into the pool and then kissing a dead fish. We were also given the option to shave our heads, which a surprisingly large number of people took up. I don’t really understand it all, but these events happened during our study day and were an overall enjoyable, weird, community-bonding experience.


A picture of a man dressed as King Neptune, in green, who presided over the festivities and knighted the new shellbacks with his triton.

King Neptune, in green, presided over the festivities and knighted the new shellbacks with his triton.

Voyager & Crew Talent Shows

We have some talented people on the ship! From singers and piano players to dancers and beat poets, the talent show was full of highly entertaining performances. I even sang my heart out with my coworkers on the Communications Team!

But the crew is a whole different level of talented. Our crew represented their 20-plus countries well through acts like Indian dances, Philippine pop songs, other strange cross-dressing love songs, and storytelling from our much loved Caribbean dining crew.

72-Hour Film Fest

Teams of five people had 3 days to make a SAS-themed video for the whole community. It could be sad, funny, scary or provocative, as long as we fulfilled certain criteria (such as the use of the community theme “ubuntu” and the inclusion of elephant pants) and kept the videos under five minutes. The student union was packed during the night of the festival, where some films were deep and meaningful, and others were just hilarious.

Sea Olympics

This was the event that we had literally been anticipating for the entire voyage. Each hall on the ship is divided into seas, and during the Olympics we faced off against one another to achieve the status of sea gods. With classic games like tug-of-war and relay races, a lip sync / dance competition, a backwards spelling bee and other various water games, there was something for everyone from every sea – including the ship kids and lifelong learners – to participate in. My Caribbean Sea won second place (to Deck 3’s Bering Sea), and we were both surprised & pleased with our ability to organize ourselves. Go Pirates!

An image showing a water balloon toss during the Sea Olympics on the cruise ship.

A rocking ship took the water balloon toss to a whole new level at the Sea Olympics.

So despite the soppy weather in Mauritius, the long stretch at sea turned out to be refreshing. I found that I had more time to spend with friends that I hadn’t traveled with, caught up on the homework that didn’t get done in India, and enjoyed participating in these crazy community-building events that only come around once.